Carried by the force of the giant salamander’s blow, Blacknail flew through the air and slammed into the cave wall. There was a loud crack from his spine as it impacted the uneven stone surface. Then, he slid down the wall and hit the floor. Ouch. Pain stabbed through Blacknail’s entire body. He was more than a little disoriented, but he immediately found the strength to jump to his feet. The memory of what the salamander’s acidic magic had done to the rock wall was still fresh in his mind, and he desperately wanted to avoid finding out what getting hit by that felt like.
Blacknail got ready to dodge another attack by the blind salamander, but it didn’t come. Instead, he saw a shimmering ball of force fly by and hit the salamander in the side. The mutant creature hissed violently as it was knocked sideways by the impact. It skidded and stumbled across the cave floor until it hit a stalagmite, but it didn’t appear too hurt. Blacknail glanced over and saw Imp standing at the cave entrance with his staff pointed at the mutant. Behind him, several other hobgoblins were cautiously peeking out from behind cover.
Blacknail scowled at them. He hated looking weak in front of his minions. “I didn’t need help. I had it right where I wanted it.”
“It smashed you into a wall,” Imp pointed out.
“Exactly, I was fooling it into dropping its guard,” Blacknail replied arrogantly before huffing in indignation.
Wait, why did his side feel wet? Reaching down, Blacknail touched his ribs and his hand came away covered in blood. The salamander’s tail was studded with small sharp crystals. One of them must have cut him. Blacknail grunted. Now he wanted to return the favor and headbutt the salamander using his new horns. That would probably be a terrible strategy, though.
Imp’s expression was carefully blank. “Ah, then you’re a very good pretender, boss. You sure fooled me too.”
“Of course I did. I’m one of the best actors ever. I hunt a lot of humans that way,” Blacknail agreed in satisfaction as he turned to focus on the salamander again. It was getting back on its feet, and it looked about as mad as an eyeless salamander could look.
“Shoot it again,” Blacknail told Imp.
There was an amused sounding sigh from Imp as he obeyed. Another magical strike lashed out of his staff. However, this time the blind salamander sensed it coming somehow. It jumped to the side and dodged the blast. Imp was capable of creating bigger blasts, but he was probably keeping the power down so that he didn’t start a cave-in. A small blast was all the distraction that Blacknail needed, though.
“Now it’s mine,” he yelled as he charged the creature.
Blacknail wouldn’t normally do something stupid like seeking out a one-on-one fight, but he wanted to test himself. He suspected that facing some real danger and pushing himself to his limit was the only way he was going to figure out how his new mutant body really worked, and not understanding himself was unacceptable. When Blacknail had first become a hobgoblin, his old master Saeter had literally beat the value of discipline into him. However, you couldn’t control yourself without first knowing yourself. Every moment of ignorance invited ruin.
The pale salamander reacted quickly to Blacknail’s charge. It scrabbled over to a tall rock, so its flank was protected from Imp, and then it shot another green blast at Blacknail. The hobgoblin chieftain lunged to the side, but he stumbled over a loose rock at the last second. Apparently, he was still a little unsteady on his feet. Thankfully, the salamander’s magical attack didn’t hit him. It zoomed right past, missing by less than an inch, and actually eating through the edge of his cloak. Grimacing, Blacknail caught his balance and resumed his charge toward the blind salamander. That had been a little too close for comfort.
The salamander was too close now for it to try another acid blast, so it decided to meet Blacknail’s charge. It scrambled out from behind the rock and lunged at him. As they closed, the pale mutant opened its mouth wide. At the same time, Blacknail raised his sword and prepared to strike. Just as the salamander began to bite down, he spun out of the way. Then, he ducked under the tail swipe that followed and slashed the creature’s side. There was a hiss of pain from the mutant as it spun around to bite him, but Blacknail leaned back away from the strike and countered by slashing the creature’s neck. He was then forced to jump back as the salamander reared-up and slashed at his face with a clawed forelimb.
Blacknail’s body ached from his previous wounds, but he was steely calm as he twisted around and caught his balance. Through the pain, he could feel his body and the magic within it. The power that radiated from this cavern was still flowing around him and seeping into his blood. It was similar to how Elixir worked, but Blacknail was now aware of one big difference. Instead of pooling and building up in his blood, the magic was being drawn away into a single point within the center of his chest. That was why he hadn’t been able to feel the power before. Yes, now Blacknail could really fight.
There was an enraged growl from the blind mutant and it snapped at Blacknail again. The hobgoblin dodged to the side and reached down within himself. He sought out the core where his power was resting. He could feel it; it burned bright like a star. Really, he had no idea how he’d managed to stay ignorant of its existence until now.
At Blacknail’s command, power surged out of the burning core, filling his body. It was very similar to drinking Elixir, and it empowered him the same way. A bloodthirsty smile appeared on Blacknail’s face as he lunged at the giant Salamander. With startling speed his blade sliced into the creature’s shoulder and tore through it. Even Blacknail was surprised. He almost stumbled. That had been faster than he’d ever moved before.
The blind salamander was bleeding from several wounds now, but it was far from finished. While Blacknail was admiring himself, it jumped back and shot a blast of acid at him. Tapping into his new strength, Blacknail sidestepped the magical strike and then lunged forward. As his blade sliced down at the creature’s head, the beast dodged to the side and swung at the hobgoblin with its tail. Instead of hopping back again, Blacknail decided to have some fun. He jumped over the crystal-studded tail as it whipped his way. Then, as he flew toward the blind salamander, he raised his blade high up above his head dramatically.
The salamander had time to react, it reared back as if in preparation to strike at Blacknail while he was still in the air. However, Blacknail had anticipated that. He pulled power out of his bright core and dragged it up into his head. His thoughts grew clearer and faster, even as the furious power made focusing on anything but itself harder. Then, Blacknail snarled and pushed the power out at the salamander. The magic rippled as it shot through the air and slammed into the salamander. The eyeless creature shivered as the power tore into it, and then it froze from terror. The wave of fear had overwhelmed its mind for a moment. That was all the time Blacknail needed. As he fell toward the salamander, he swung down at its neck with all his power. His muscles strained as metal met flesh, but the blade cut through skin and sliced into the creature. Blood sprayed out of the wound as a large artery was severed, and a gurgling sound escaped the creature’s throat. As Blacknail kicked the salamander’s shoulder and used the leverage to tug his blade free, the beast spasmed violently and then collapsed onto the cave floor. A pool of shimmering dark blood swiftly began expanding out from its body as it lay completely still. Laughing gleefully, Blacknail hopped over the blood and gave the corpse a kick. He’d won and grown stronger doing it! Was there any better feeling than cutting your enemies apart?
A few seconds later, Blacknail relaxed and took a series of deep breaths. His euphoria quickly faded and was replaced by weariness as he wiped his blade clean and sheathed it. As he looked down at his fallen foe, he could feel what he suspected was magic radiating out from its body now that it was dead. Blacknail closed his eyes for a moment and let himself feel what was going on around him. His own body seemed to be pulling that power in and draw it into his core, where it was stored for later use.
“Congratulations on your incredible victory, boss,” Ferrar announced as he led the other hobgoblins over to Blacknail’s side.
Imp gave Blacknail a quick nod, and then the mage walked over to the fallen salamander and pulled out a long knife. Kneeling down, he began cutting into its belly. A moment later, he reached in up to his elbow, and began rummaging around for its core. Blood got everywhere, but Imp didn’t seem to care. He was focused on his prize.
“My victory was never in doubt. That stupid mutant was easy prey for a great hunter like me,” Blacknail said as he turned to face Ferrar. He had to suppress a pained grimace, since his side was beginning to hurt again now that he wasn’t reinforcing himself using magic anymore.
Ferrar nodded. “Yes, you are truly amazing, boss. What do you want to do now that the beast is slain?”
Blacknail frowned and looked around. He felt like taking a bit of a rest and enjoying the quiet atmosphere for a while. The cave was still full of power he could absorb.
“I’m going to stay here and enjoy the um… air for a few minutes. Go wait outside and give me some quiet,” he told his minions.
Imp had apparently found the blind salamander’s core. The hobgoblin was splattered with blood as he walked over to join the others. Ferrar looked confused, but he gave Blacknail a quick bow and did as he was told. All the other hobgoblins followed him back out into the passage that led into the crystal chamber.
“The air smells like dead fish and worms in there. Why would the chief…” a hobgoblin observed as they walked out. His companion just silenced him with a stern look, and then they were out of sight.
When all his minions were gone, Blacknail walked over to the crack in the wall. The chamber was much darker without the light from Imp’s staff, but several of the crystals on the walls glowed dimly, and that provided Blacknail with enough light to make his way around. Blacknail studied the crevice and the crystal around it for a moment. He could feel the magic flowing out of it, and he hungered for it. Thus, since he didn’t have a better idea, he sat down on the floor in front of it and closed his eyes. In the dark, he just let the power wash over him and be drawn down into his core. It was very relaxing and satisfying, like taking a deep drink of cool water after being out in the hot sun for too long.
Blacknail lost track of time as he focused on his breathing and the flow of magic. Actually, he may have fallen asleep for a moment or two, but eventually he began to feel sated. He also knew that he couldn’t to sit there forever, so he reluctantly climbed to his feet. Making his way through the dark chamber, he walked out to join his minions in the passage.
Several of them were napping, but a few swift kicks got everyone up and moving. Once they reached the underground river chamber, Blacknail used his ability to project terror to send any creatures that approached skittering back into the shadows. After that, they soon got back to the intersection that led toward the surface and the mines, so they finally began their tour of the mines. Blacknail found them to be rather unimpressive. They were just a bunch of long tunnels full of rocks and spotted by the occasional harvester farm, pool of water, or bottomless pit. However, looking around did help him come to a better understanding of what would be required to secure the mines and get production up. Cracks needed to be sealed, guard posts needed to be set up at chokepoints, and patrols would be needed to inspect the sealed cracks.
All of Blacknail’s minions were tired and weary by the time they got back up to the surface, so he gave them a few orders and then dismissed them. Only Ferrar remained behind, since they had more to talk about. Imp hurried back to his workshop to examine his new mana crystal, and hopefully clean up a bit. He was still soaked in salamander blood and it had started to smell.
“How is my house coming?” Backnail asked Ferrar after they’d discussed the operation of the mine for a while.
“Slow but steady, boss. I let the humans from Shelter take charge of that project, since they know more about it and I’m busy with other jobs. Humans are good at fancy things.”
Blacknail nodded in agreement. “They are, but don’t let them work too slowly. I want my fancy house before the snows.”
“Why don’t I just show you what’s been done?” Ferrar asked.
That sounded like a good idea to Blacknail, so he let the hobgoblin craftsman take him over toward the center of the settlement. That was where the mansion was under construction. The home was far from done, but a large area had been dug up and filled in with a foundation made from stone and mortar. There were several large piles of logs and other construction material laying nearby, and a few exterior walls had already been raised. When it was done, the mansion would be several times larger than any of the longhouses. It would also be a lot more impressive looking.
It looked good, but Blacknail really wanted the work to go faster. Right now, he was still sleeping in a cave. It was a rather nice cave and he’d never had any problems with it, but as an important leader, he needed a fancier home than everyone else.
“Can’t you go any faster?” he asked Ferrar.
“We could use the stone from the mine and mortar to help build your home’s walls. It would be a good test for the settlement’s walls, but it would also slow down work on them,” Ferrar suggested.
“Fine, if you think that’s a good idea,” Blacknail agreed reluctantly. Why couldn’t his minions just do everything at the same time? Obviously, they were spoiled rotten.
“A stone home would look fancier than a wood one,” Ferrar pointed out.
“It would also be harder to burn down,” Blacknail replied as he gave the other hobgoblin a meaningful look.
“True, some of the goblins around here like playing with fire too much,” Ferrar agreed as he frowned in disapproval.
Blacknail’s eyes narrowed as glared at the other hobgoblin. “And you don’t do that?”
“I never play with fire! It’s no toy. You have to respect the flames and offer them proper sacrifices if you want to summon their full might! Only then will they bless you with warmth and power. Only then will they let you transform the world with their searing glory!”
Blacknail was fairly certain that was an even more troubling way of thinking. Still, Ferrar hadn’t burned down anything too important yet, so Blacknail let it go. He dismissed Ferrar and went to find something else to do. After resting in the cave and drawing in so much mana, he was full of more mundane energy as well. He needed to do something to burn it off. His muscles were practically aching to be used. He wanted to just start running around until he collapsed.
However, Blacknail didn’t break out into a run. That would look undignified, and probably scare a lot of goblins. Instead, he ended up wandering around until he found a spot outside the walls where several hobgoblins were chopping down trees. He grabbed an axe and joined in. This startled the nearby hobgoblins, who were quite surprised to find their towering chief began attacking all the nearby trees. Blacknail ignored them. They were just minions. He focused on burning as much energy as possible. For what was possibly the first time ever, working hard felt good.
Eventually, Gob and several other hobgoblins arrived and walked over to talk to their boss. Blacknail registered their presence but didn’t stop hacking at the tree in front of him. Chips of wood flew away as his axe bit deep into it again and again.
“What are you doing, boss?” Gob asked him.
“I’m helping the work crews chop down some trees,” Blacknail replied as he continued to work.
“The crew left almost an hour ago.”
Blacknail finally stopped swinging his axe. He let its heavy iron head fall to the ground as he turned to look around. Huh, Gob was right. There were no more hobgoblins workers around. He hadn’t even noticed them sneak away. What a bunch of slackers.
“I don’t think we need any more trees felled,” Gob observed politely. There were dozens of the fallen giants already in sight.
“You may be right,” Blacknail admitted. “Maybe I should gather up some minions and carry these logs inside?”
Gob frowned. It didn’t seem like he thought that was a good idea. However, Herah stepped forward and licked her lips as her eyes studied every inch of Blacknail’s body. “I can think of something sweaty and physical we could do together.”
Blacknail dropped his axe and grinned back at her. “Sure, that sounds like fun.”